Meet Cole Hauser: The Jewish tough guy on Paramount Network’s ‘Yellowstone’

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Paramount Network

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Rip Wheeler is the kind of guy who walks into a room and the fear he puts in people has already been there for ten minutes. Played with ferocity and just the right amount of vulnerability by Jewish actor Cole Hauser, Rip is one of the best and most vital characters on the Paramount Network’s hit series, “Yellowstone.”

*Mild spoilers ahead *

Co-created and written by Taylor Sheridan, well-known for elite action thrillers such as “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water,” the television series is currently in its third season. “Sopranos” on a Montana ranch basically, the plot centers around John Dutton (a very good Kevin Costner) and his family of ranchers; a motley crew including his daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), sons (Luke Grimes and Wes Bentley) and group of ranch hands, led by Hauser’s Wheeler; as they wield power with local affiliations and other formidable groups in the region.

How good is Hauser on the show? I didn’t even know it was the actor for a handful of episodes, that’s how good.

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After a career of playing clean-shaven bad guys, Hauser’s handsome features are covered by a large beard and the cowboy matted down by a stellar cowboy hat. Every actor’s sole goal in their profession should be disappearing into a role while giving viewers small calling cards of their previous work, and Hauser fulfills the quota on “Yellowstone.” If someone gets out of line on the Dutton ranch, they get a fistful of knuckle dollars from Rip. If someone takes a shot at John Dutton, Rip is coming for you. When the sharp-as-a-knife and highly intelligent Beth aims to melt the cold, tough heart of Rip in Season 2, you kind of doubt it due to what has come before the romance.

But that’s what makes Hauser’s protector so engrossing: the fact that there is tenderness in his heart, a vulnerability that Reilly’s unstoppable force thaws out. If Rip was just another punching, kicking, and shouting character who dismissed the threats and grunted his way back to the bunk house afterwards, the role wouldn’t be as visceral and intriguing. But outside of the big, bad wolf aspect of the part, Hauser gives a better performance when the shaved rock facial features start to crack due to emotion. Viewers who make it through the first season’s initial batch of episodes come to find out that Wheeler was orphaned at a young age in a brutal fashion–and Costner’s patriarch is the one who rescued him from a deadly home.

Hauser took that storytelling cue and elevated his performance instead of just letting the written description of Rip’s trauma do all the work. The actor-son of Jewish film producer Cass Warner, who founded the company Warner Sisters –takes the audience there with his ability to transcend Rip’s pain without going overboard with the melodrama. Hauser’s blue eyes carry an extra layer of rustic silver in these scenes, deepening the character and pulling the audience in close. It’s a well-balanced performance that leaves women watching the show wanting to be with this guy, and the men looking on wanting to somehow emulate Wheeler’s sophisticated yet blunt masculinity.

Hauser’s scenes with Reilly are among his best on the show because each character gets to be something they usually aren’t when around each other. Beth’s ruthless businesswoman gets to peel a few layers off Rip’s hardened surface, and vice versa. The actors bring out the best in each other.

Paramount Network

If you noticed his face, unlike me initially, and wondered what else he has been in, allow me to fill in those blanks. Way back before Sheridan wrote Rip Wheeler, Hauser could be seen as the friend in “Good Will Hunting” without Damon or Affleck in his name. Hauser battled Vin Diesel in the underseen sci-fi thriller “Pitch Black,” and played a terribly underwritten role as the heavy in the second (and easily the worst) “Fast and Furious” film, “2 Fast 2 Furious.”

Hauser also has small parts in the Bruce Willis actioner, “Tears of the Sun” and Richardf Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” He spent a lot of years in Hollywood as “that one guy,” the common phrase spit out of a person’s mouth when they recognize an actor and can’t match his face with a name.

Well, “Yellowstone” changed that in a big way. Now, it’s impossible to know Hauser as anything other than the forceful yet caring Rip–and that’s not exactly a bad thing. While the attention and role selection can tighten up when this occurs, I don’t think anyone hears Jeremy Piven (very Jewish) complaining about Ari Gold too much or Bryan Cranston (slightly Jewish) whining about acclaiming limitless status with his Walter White portrayal. Hauser’s career-defining performance is one that will go on for years if Paramount allows Sheridan to properly tell the Dutton story.

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